Daughter finds the write words from dad

My father rarely wrote anything down. Take birthday cards, for example: While my mother would embellish the printed message with sweet, loving passages and hand-drawn hearts, my father’s heavy script only appeared at the bottom, where he signed his name. It seemed strange for a man who told me, when I began writing fiction in grade school, that he once wanted to be an author.

As I got older, I realized his reticence stemmed from something deeper — it was hard for him to express emotions, either verbally or on the page. He rarely spent quality time with me, and never seemed interested in my personal life. Sure, he would praise a high test score at the dinner table or, on rare occasions, help me with a math problem or science project, but conversation never flowed naturally between us. Our brief exchanges usually petered out when he turned back to the TV or the newspaper, detached. 

I grew envious of my friends’ relationships with their fathers. They had dads who remembered the names of their friends, who shared inside jokes, who lent a patient ear during times of teen angst. I couldn’t imagine confiding in my father about a crush or any kind of school drama. He only seemed to care whether I kept enough gas in the car. There was a moat between us, and eventually, neither of us remembered how to cross it. 

Just before I left for college, we seemed to find common ground. He was perpetually immersed with books about geopolitics, and I was hungry to expand my worldview. He began to treat me as an intellectual partner, if not an emotional one. We talked stocks, commodities markets, global finances. I felt privileged that he was finally lavishing me with attention. 

One day, in a moment of boldness, I suggested, “Why don’t you write me a book?” It would give him a chance to become the author he wanted to be, and it would also fulfill a selfish desire of mine: I craved more communication from him; I was starved for his words. But he never picked up a pen. 

When Alzheimer’s disease began to set in six years ago, my father’s writing, ironically, was our first clue. My mother and I began to find notes around their house — email addresses taped to the computer screen, phone numbers scrawled on the desk and on filing cabinets. Once, we found a short paragraph he had written, describing the nature of his Army service in the 1950s. Its only purpose that we could fathom was to preserve the memory. I held onto it — even a few sentences in his choppy hand were better than nothing. 

The years of distance between us have taken their toll. Now that my father stays in a nursing home, I don’t visit him as often as I could. There is even less to say than before, when he still remembered what I do, where I live, my husband and cats — when he could easily recall my name. 

But a few months ago, my father’s second cousin in Israel called with a bombshell: My dad had written him letters over the years. Lots of them.

Letters? When he could barely sign a greeting card? 

Not only that, but my father’s relative had dutifully preserved them. He scanned a few so I could see them, and I caught my breath as the images popped up on my computer screen. 

October 2000: Rachel has one more year in high school, so we are starting to look for a university she could attend. She is mostly interested in art, literature and creative writing.

March 2002: Rachel will be starting her university education in late August. She will be 200 miles away and we will miss her.

I felt gobsmacked. So there was life on the other side of the moat, after all. And caring. And pride. Had I missed something?

As my father’s illness progresses, the channels between us are opening in other surprising ways: He’s starting to say all of the things he never could when he was well. When he sees me walk into the room now, his knitted brow relaxes and the corners of his mouth turn upward. On walks, he asks to hold my hand. He kisses my fingers and tells me, “You’re beautiful.” 

When I was sitting next to him on the couch recently, he suddenly turned to me, clutched my hand and announced, “My darling girl.” I was stunned. Had I been his darling girl this whole time? Why didn’t he say so?

Yet maybe, in his own way, he did. I printed the letters and showed his heartfelt sentiments to my mother. 

“Shocking, right?” I asked her.

“Not shocking,” she countered. “You don’t remember everything.”

“What don’t I remember?”

“How much he cared for you.”

So maybe there’s another side to the narrative. Maybe I, too, am guilty of forgetting — of focusing only on my resentment and the ways I felt cheated over the years, of holding fast to my grudge. Thinking back, maybe I closed my ears to my dad and ignored the quiet hum of how he felt. Just because he didn’t say kind words out loud doesn’t mean they weren’t there. 

After seeing his thoughts written down — uttered, it turns out, to someone else — I’m starting to re-evaluate his constant inquiries about the gas in my car, about whether I lock my doors at night. That might have been the closest he could come to saying, “You’re important to me.”

I can’t ask my father for closure now; there’s no point in replaying memories he can no longer recall. Maybe memory only has so much value, anyway. Maybe there is healing in letting go. 

The Age of Feelings

In the Pacific Coast waters off the Northern California city of Eureka on Nov. 10, a mother, a father and their teenage son all died.

It was not a boating accident or a shark attack. 

They died because at least one of them tried to save the family dog, which had been carried out to sea by 10-foot waves. The 16-year-old son ran into the water. When the father could no longer see the son, he ran into the water to save the teen. Meanwhile, the son had gone back to shore. But when he and his mom could no longer see the father, they both tried to save him.

All three drowned.

The dog swam back to the shore.

I relate this terrible tragedy because it illuminates a major issue that we all — especially parents raising young children — need to address.

It is the role of feelings in determining our actions.

Why did this teenager — as have so many others, young and old — risk his life to save his dog? Because he acted on feelings, not on reason or values.

We live in the Age of Feelings. People make big decisions in their own lives, and in the life of the nation, based on feelings.

The heart has supplanted reason and values. Some years ago, I interviewed a Swedish doctoral student about her thoughts on life. 

I asked her if she believed in God? No.

I asked her if she believed in any religion? No, again.

So, then, I asked, how do you determine right and wrong? 

Her heart tells her, she responded.

One of the first things I learned in yeshiva as a child was not to allow feelings to determine how I acted. This realization took place in fourth grade, when my rabbi announced, “Boys, it’s time to daven mincha” (to say the afternoon prayers).

I walked over to Rabbi Fostag and respectfully told him that “I wasn’t in the mood to daven mincha.”

He studied the comment thoughtfully, rubbing his beard. He had probably never heard the words “mood” and “daven” (or any other mitzvah, for that matter) put together. 

Finally, he looked up and said, “Shmuel Prager is not in the mood to daven mincha? So what?”

I learned one of the greatest moral lessons that day — that good can rarely, if ever, depend on the heart. Indeed the Tanakh is filled with warnings against being guided by the heart (and the eyes).

That family might be alive today if someone had told that teenage boy never to risk his life to save his dog. 

Someone, ideally his parents, needed to tell him the following:

“All of us in the family love Teddy [a name I’m giving the dog]. But you must understand that you are infinitely more precious to Mom and Dad than is Teddy. As sad as Teddy’s death will one day be, we can always get another dog. But we can never replace you or your sister [a sister is now the family’s sole surviving member]. More than that, human life is infinitely more precious than animal life. We, not animals, are created in God’s image. So, you need to promise us that if there is any risk in saving Teddy’s life — such as happens most frequently when a dog falls into a body of water or is carried away by a current, you will stop yourself from trying to save him. Your death would ruin our lives. Teddy’s death wouldn’t.”

There are no guarantees that this would work. But parents should have such a talk with their children. At the very least, it teaches one of the most important rules of life: that we cannot be ruled by our feelings but must be ruled by values.

We have sent young Americans the very opposite message. How they feel about things has become parents’ and society’s No. 1 concern. Instead of an objective right and wrong, young people are taught only to be concerned with how they feel about an action. The entire Values Clarification movement in public schools years ago was about “clarifying” how students felt about any action (such as whether to return a lost purse). Because there is never a right answer, all that mattered was that they be clear about how they felt.

A generation of parents and educators has now come to believe and to teach that when it comes to sex, teenagers will simply act on their feelings, so all we adults can do is provide them with contraceptives and sex education about contraception. The idea that teenagers might actually curb their sexual appetites if taught to control their feelings and to live by certain values is regarded as antiquated nonsense in this, the Age of Feelings.

But this “antiquated nonsense” is actually a fundamental Jewish teaching. Indeed, if one had to isolate the greatest lesson of Judaism, it might arguably be this: Behavior is what matters. Not feelings. 

Feelings make us human, but they are awful guides on how to be human. Tell that to your kids.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Elegy for a Dream

I came to America 30 years ago last month. I arrived in Los Angeles the night Elvis died. I was 16 years old, fresh out of a Swiss boarding school, about to
start my first year of college.

This was two years before the Islamic Revolution, yet I had left Iran willingly and without regret, certain that I would never go back except to visit. I did love the country, and most of its people. To this day, I think it’s the most beautiful place I have seen, and that its people, by and large, are among the smartest, most hospitable, most capable in the world.

But even in 1977, when the Shah was still firmly in power and his kingdom was, in the fateful words of President Carter, “an island of stability,” Iran was a place of great injustice and vast intolerance — a land of the mighty where the rich, the well-connected wielded nearly absolute power over the weak. And though I came from a well-to-do family, at a time when the Jews had thrived and prospered thanks to the Shah, I was acutely aware of the small and large cruelties — the devastating limitations imposed on the poor, the meek and women by religion and geography and thousand-year-old traditions.

The first two years in Los Angeles were a time of great loneliness for me: I had lost touch with my Iranian friends when I left for boarding school, and I lost my boarding school friends when I left for America. Back then, most Americans had not heard of Iran and couldn’t imagine what kind of place it was. When I told them it’s somewhere in the Middle East, near some Arab countries, and that we had oil, they asked, without malice or sarcasm, if I could belly-dance and if we had paved roads and cars or if we rode camels to work and school. When I told them that Iranians are not Arabs, that Iran is the old Persia, they looked at me suspiciously and asked why, then, had I claimed I was Iranian, and not Persian.

Still, there was something about being cut loose from the past, existing in a vacuum of tradition and identity so dissimilar to the rigid structure that would have stifled me in Iran, having possibilities I wouldn’t have dared contemplate as a woman or a Jew back there, that gave me a sense of exhilaration and optimism.

When the Shah fell in early ’79, and tens of thousands of other Iranians began to settle in Los Angeles, I thought I had been granted two blessings at once: I could live in the proximity of my Iranian family and friends, without having to submit to the inequities of Iranian society. I found it strange that other Iranian Jews, even women my age, lamented the fall of the Shah and their own subsequent exile with such great passion, that they spent months, even years, glued to American television and Farsi language radio, waiting for news of the coup they were sure the Shah, and later his son, would stage. I could understand the sense of loss and disorientation, the nostalgia for home and country that many of my fellow Iranian Jews suffered from in those days, but I didn’t see how any of us would want to return to the place we had been, in my mind at least, liberated from. How we could, in good conscience, pray to return to life in a dictatorship when we could live in a democratic country; how we could wish to be ruled by one man’s whims and wishes when we could opt for a set of laws that transcended the individual?

Once the Shah died and his crown prince assumed the role of “monarch in exile,” I watched with wonder as Iranians rallied around him in hopes that he would unseat the mullahs and bring them all back home. I had seen him — Crown Prince Reza — when I was a child in Iran. He was about my age. In official photographs and on the television news, he looked lost in his surroundings, uncomfortable in the French suits and military uniforms he was made to wear, uneasy before the grown men who bowed before him and kissed his hand, the jewel-clad women who were moved to tears by the honor of having permission to curtsy before him.

Three decades later, in the gatherings hosted by Iranian immigrants in Los Angeles, he was tall, graying, and still, to my mind, a bit lost. He spoke about his imminent return to Iran, how he was going to save the country and its people, rule as a constitutional monarch. To me, he sounded tentative — as if he were playing a role he had assumed for lack of another option, chasing a destiny that, try as he might, he knew he wasn’t going to catch. But all around me people sat glued to his words, praising his speeches, rushing to applaud.

I could understand the adoration most Jews had for him and his father: The Shah had been good to us. He had given us freedom and opportunity and a sense of safety we hadn’t known for more than 1,000 years of living in Shiite Iran. But he had also ruled as a tyrant who claimed he was God’s personal envoy on Earth, who insisted that his portrait be displayed in every house and business establishment in the country, that his anthem — not the national anthem, but the one created to worship him — be played in every movie theater before every showing of every film. That schoolchildren everywhere in the country begin their day with a prayer for his health and well-being. His appetite for power was endless; the consequences for disobeying were unthinkable. Is this, I wondered, what people were wishing to return to?

On Aug. 24, I was clearing out my junk e-mail when I came upon an e-mail sent by one of the many Iranian-American groups active on the Web. Perhaps because it was the anniversary of my arrival in the United States, because I was already amazed and stunned at the speed with which time had passed, I opened the e-mail. It was a grainy, black-and-white, home video shot by an unsteady hand and posted on You Tube. It showed images of Tehran on the morning of the Shah’s official coronation: Empty, barricaded streets; the Shah and his family inside a palace, walking down a velvet rug, up to a bejeweled throne where he placed a crown on his queen’s head, and another on his own. Afterward, thousands of people lined up behind barricades on the sides of the streets, an endless police motorcade, two carriages — one for the Shah and his queen, the other for the crown prince — pulled by white horses. It was an unreal sight — the young prince, so small that his feet, I imagined, didn’t reach the floor of the carriage, sitting behind the window with the solid gold frame, waving his little hand at his father’s subjects, traversing a street, a city, a country that, he has been told all his life, will one day be his.

Woman’s cathartic memoir focuses on Hobson’s Choice — mom or dad

Devyani Saltzman sat frozen over her math homework as her parents screamed at each other one evening at the Cannes Film Festival in 1992. Her mother, the Indian-born filmmaker Deepa Mehta, had come to Cannes to premiere her first feature, “Sam & Me,” about the unlikely relationship between an elderly Jew and his Indian caregiver. Devyani’s father, Canadian-Jewish producer Paul Saltzman, had joined her to celebrate.

Instead, their own relationship unraveled that evening in what was to be the last fight (and, essentially, the last day) of their marriage. When the argument subsided, they turned to 11-year-old Devyani and asked her to choose whom she wanted to live with. A few minutes later, the stunned girl left the rented French apartment, holding her father’s hand.

“With a child’s instincts, it felt only natural to choose him over my mother,” the now 26-year-old author explains in “Shooting Water: A Memoir of Second Chances, Family and Filmmaking.” “I felt safe with him, while my mother’s pain and anger sometimes scared me. The court decreed I could choose to live with whom I wished, and I spent the following eight years visiting my mother sporadically. Our time together was painful and always haunted by my choice.”

In “Shooting Water,” Saltzman says her decision, in fact, haunted every aspect of her life. She recounts feeling torn between two people and two cultures, belonging nowhere; repressing her anxieties by burying herself in her studies, only to suffer a depressive breakdown at Oxford University; quarreling with her mother, who traveled extensively to make controversial, feminist films, and reconciling on the set of Mehta’s 2006 film, “Water” (now Canada’s Oscar submission).

The book also describes Saltzman’s Ukrainian-Jewish bubbie, who became a Communist after Bolsheviks saved her from a pogrom, and how young Devyani celebrated both Passover and the Hindu New Year before her parents divorced.”Filmmaking was the common culture my parents raised me in, beyond being Jewish or Indian,” the quietly intense author said in a phone interview from her Toronto apartment.

But after the divorce, she said, her mother remained bitter that she had decided to live with her father. When Saltzman had a problem, Mehta sometimes angrily suggested that she call her father, since she had chosen him. Or she seemed inaccessible while reading scripts or chain-smoking Rothman’s cigarettes.

When Mehta asked her to work in the camera department on “Water” in 1999, Saltzman seized the opportunity.

“The three months of production would have been the most time we had spent together in eight years, and I viewed it as our second chance together,” Saltzman said. That December, the then 19-year-old Saltzman arrived on location in Benares, India, a holy city on the Ganges River, where political strife helped bring her closer to her mother.

Hindu fundamentalists in Benares were already wary of Mehta. In 1996, extremists had attacked theaters showing her film, “Fire,” about lesbian sisters-in-law trapped in oppressive, arranged marriages. They were equally suspicious that “Water” – about Hindu widows forced into poverty to atone for their spouses’ deaths – might vilify their faith.

Saltzman helped ensure accuracy by visiting such widows. As her mother prepared to shoot on cremation grounds that descended into the Ganges, Saltzman descended a staircase leading to a widows’ ashram in the cellar of a hotel. In the freezing, dust-filled room, she met elderly women who wore filthy saris and subsisted on one meager meal per day. She learned that even child-widows could be forced into such an existence (although child marriage is now illegal).

“I was shocked, but proud that my mother’s film would help expose this way of life,” Saltzman said.

Yet the production wasn’t to be — at least, in Benares. The government shut down the shoot after protesters rioted, burned her mother in effigy and telephoned with death threats. (When Saltzman once picked up the phone, a voice hissed that Mehta was a “whore” and that she had better leave town.)

The movie was put on hold for five years until Mehta received funding — and permission — to finish the project in Sri Lanka. Because of the fear of Hindu extremists in that country, the set’s location remained secret, and the director had no guarantees she would be able to finish her film.

In Sri Lanka, Saltzman cared for Mehta when she fell ill and told her mother how proud she was of her socially conscious movie. By the end of the shoot, her mother had forgiven her for the choice she had made long ago at Cannes.The experience also gave Saltzman the idea for her first book, “Shooting Water.””But I didn’t want to write just an Oprahesque, growing up, teary thing,” she said. “I tried to express myself by balancing cinema and politics with the personal journey.”

Even so, the memoir proved cathartic for both mother and daughter.”As I read her book, I alternately smile and feel perturbed,” Mehta wrote in the memoir’s afterward. “Perturbed by her pain — because as parents we let her down; smile, because her honesty and courage made this redemption possible.”

Devyani Saltzman will speak Nov. 28 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Beth David in Temple City.

Devyani Saltzman will speak Nov. 28 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Beth David in Temple City, as part of the Jewish Book Festival presented by the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys. For information, call (626) 287-9994 or (626) 332-0700.

B’nai Mitzvah: It’s OK! Go ahead and cry

I don’t remember much about my own bat mitzvah many years ago, but I do remember this: My father cried as he turned to speak to me after the conclusion of the Torah reading.

I can’t remember a single word that he said, not a one, but I do remember his wet eyes and the sound his voice made when the words came from his heart, rather than his head. He cried when he spoke to my brother at his bar mitzvah a year later, when he told my sister how proud he was at her bat mitzvah four years after that, and he cried again at my baby sister’s bat mitzvah 13 years and two months after mine. If you were doing the math, you would have correctly guessed that my mother was very pregnant at my bat mitzvah.

(This was very disconcerting, because it meant that all of my friends knew that my elderly, 30-something parents were still having sex! Talk about gross.)

Considering I had only witnessed my father crying one other time during my 13 years of existence — the sound of his sobs snuck under the crack of his bedroom door after he learned that his close college friend dropped dead before his 34th birthday — I was stunned by his open display of emotion.

The image of my father crying at my bat mitzvah came back to me recently as I witnessed two of my closest friends stand on the bimah facing their own children on two different Shabbats. Each of these lifelong friends became choked with emotion as they tried to express to their kids the joy that they have brought into their lives and their dreams for their futures.

My 12-year-old daughter, Rachel, after witnessing these two normally cool, collected parents and their husbands become victims of their emotions, wondered why parents always seemed to cry when they spoke to their newly bar and bat mitzvahed children. I didn’t know the answer to that question when my father (and it goes without saying my mother) teared up at my bat mitzvah, but I think I understand it now.

Rachel, this is why parents cry at bar and bat mitzvahs:

We cry because we can’t believe we are old enough to have a 13-year-old child.
And we cry because there are many people that we loved and desperately miss — grandparents, aunts, uncles, and sometimes parents or friends — who died, but should have been sitting among the other beaming friends and relatives that fill the congregation.

We cry because it is one of the few times in your life when nearly everyone who cares about you will be in the same room, at the same time.

We cry because we wasted so much time agonizing about finding the “perfect” caterer, invitation, DJ, photographer and videographer; choreographing seating charts (Aunt Martha can’t sit within 100 feet of her ex-husband and his new trophy wife); finding the perfect mother-of-the-bat-mitzvah dress (conservative yet fashionable), when it suddenly becomes clear that this is the moment that really mattered all along.

We cry out of happiness that we will no longer have to listen to your endless complaints about attending Hebrew school and have to nag you to study your Torah portion and out of sadness that that yet another chapter of your life is behind you.

We cry because your innocent childhood years are now behind you, and the angst-filled teenage years lie ahead.

We cry because we remember all of the moronic things that we did when we were teenagers, which could have ruined or ended our lives but didn’t, and we are terrified that you won’t be as lucky.

We cry because we can foresee that the opinion of the kids who sit together in the back row of the congregation, whispering during the service and checking out each other’s evolving bodies, will matter more to you in a year or two than our opinion.

We cry because we wanted to leave you the world a better place than we found it, and that seems unachievable.

We cry because we are terrified that you might make one seemingly small mistake — forget to wear a seat belt, get in a car with a teen driver who had too much to drink, have sex without a condom, or become addicted to a drug — and forever alter the course of the life that we envisioned for you months before your umbilical cord was cut.

We cry because we are grateful that we live in a country that allows us absolute religious freedom.

We cry because millions of Jews haven’t been as lucky.

We cry because even though we spent hours thinking about what we would say to you at this moment, we really just want you to understand how much you are loved, but the words don’t exist.

And we cry because we are frustrated that you can’t possibly comprehend why this day, this moment, is so compelling. We know you won’t “get it” until you are standing on the bimah talking to your own child many years from now. We know this because we didn’t get it when our parents stood on the bimah of our childhood synagogues with tears in their eyes, with voices overtaken by emotion.

But Rachel, I can promise you this: If your father and I are lucky enough to sit in the front row seats reserved for grandparents at your child’s bar or bat mitzvah, we will cry again, thrilled and relieved that you had the opportunity to cry at your own child’s bar mitzvah.

Wendy Jaffe is a freelance writer and the author of “The Divorce Lawyers’ Guide To Staying Married” (Volt Press, 2006). She can be reached at wjaffewrite@aol.com.

The Candy Man Can

If you’ve ever tried to split a Big Hunk candy bar — the kind made out of brittle white nougat and peanuts — then you understand a typical breakup. It’s usually not
neat, like a Kit Kat, two for you, two for me, let’s go our separate ways and we’ll run into each other in three years at the Whole Foods with a good-natured hug in front of a platter of cubed cheese.

No, it’s usually more of a messy and twisted divide, with a few peanuts falling on the floor and someone always getting less than his or her fair share.
While everyone knows the “clean break” is the way to go, it’s rarely possible. Two people who were once in love are just not a Twix.

In fact, I will postulate that if you have ever succeeded in a truly clean break on the first try, you are most likely a sociopath. Not to be judgmental, but you’re not capable of real love.

To be honest, I would assume the “clean break” was an urban myth, if I hadn’t experienced one, against my will, at the cruel hand of an episodic television writer who had a lingerie model on the back burner.

He had no interest in my desperate plea to “just be friends while we figure things out.” In fact, he never wanted to speak to me again, and he never did. In fact, he once ducked out of a coffee shop after noticing me inside — with a theatrical sprint toward his BMW, years after we broke up. I would like to say I admire his sanitary approach to people-leaving, but I would like even more to point out that his mode is out of reach for all but the most disciplined or emotionally crippled among us.

Instead, the majority of us face a few agonizing days alone before launching into a despair-fueled effort to shove the pieces back together again. In my experience, there is usually the mini-reconciliation, the second break up, the third mini-reconciliation and the final coup de grace when one or both of you inevitably remembers why you broke it off in the first place.

Alternatively, if you are gifted at conning yourself, you may set up a series of spectacularly delusional relationship “experiments” to be played out before the final curtain comes down.

These experiments may include any of the following: Let’s try seeing other people, but only sleeping with each other. Let’s go back to “dating” and recapture the “honeymoon phase.” Let’s only see each other once a week. Let’s move into separate rooms of the house. Let’s take some “time off.” Let’s avoid ever mentioning: that girl from the office you cheated with, your mother who insulted me at your nephew’s bar mitzvah, the job you quit because it was “boring,” or any other topic that always leads to a blow-up. Let’s up the couples counseling to twice a day. Let’s only communicate via e-mail or sonic vibration and echolocation. Let’s come up with a cute code word for every time you do that thing that drives me nuts, maybe “Octopus.”

You know how it goes. For a couple of weeks, you’re both on your best behavior. You say “Octopus” and giggle at the relationship’s former infirmity. Those few tear — or bourbon — soaked nights of being apart are still so fresh in your memory, you will give any farkakta plan a try just to avoid being alone and truly accepting that a thing which was once viable is now on the slag heap.

I am now six weeks past a second faux break-up and mini-reconciliation and into the real Break Up. The talking, texting and doomed plans are all behind me.
It’s over, and I knew it would be, but I loved the guy, and after almost three years we were intertwined (think Nestle 100 Grand Bar), so I did the human thing and sunk my teeth into a few squares of denial and pain postponement. I don’t have a new boyfriend or any new addictions, I’m just feeling sad now like I’m supposed to, and that’s the best idea, as far as I know.

My friend Cammy says if you don’t feel ripped up after a break up, if you don’t try some idiotic plan to make it work again, you didn’t do the relationship right. If you don’t hurt, your heart wasn’t in it and that’s why you can walk away neatly with your half of the Almond Joy, leaving nary a crumb on the floor.
All these candy bar metaphors, while hopefully evocative, have made me hungry. And break ups make me hungry. So while I couldn’t manage it in “real life,” I can now pay a buck for two great tastes that taste great together. And a confection that’s easy to split.

Teresa Strasser in an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She can be heard weekday mornings on the syndicated Adam Carolla morning radio show and is on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.

Sacrifices Address Emotion of Guilt

The theme of Parshat Tzav is korbanot, the animal sacrifices brought in the Tabernacle and, later, in the Temple.

The Rambam, in his “Guide to the Perplexed,” writes, “The purpose of sacrifices being incorporated into the Divine service of the Jewish people was to accommodate the transition of the people going from the extreme falsehood of idol worship to the extreme truth of worshipping one true God. The Jewish people had been steeped in an idolatrous culture and could only free themselves from it by utilizing the same form of animal sacrifice that they were accustomed to. Now, through strict rules and regiments, they could direct it toward the service of God.”

Unfortunately, this statement has been grossly misunderstood. The Rambam never meant to imply that korbanot were a temporary means of service, whose practice would be abandoned as soon as the Jewish people were weaned from their idolatrous ways. Noah and his sons offered korbanot after the flood; Avraham offered various sacrifices. Neither of them needed to be weaned from idolatry.

Although the concept of animal sacrifices seems foreign, almost antithetical to our notion of serving God, korbanot were offered in the Temple on a daily basis. The detailed rituals of sacrifices played an essential role in the celebration of each holiday, and various sacrifices were offered to mark significant events in the lives of people.

Korbanot obviously played a major role in our service to God. How are we to understand that role?

The ultimate way to serve God and come closer to Him is through prayer and Torah study, for those methods involve one’s heart and one’s intellect.

At the same time, we are created with physical drives, and we are therefore driven to relate to God in a physical, tangible way. Offering a korban (from the word karov, to come close) is a hands-on project.

But this very human need is not given free rein; rather, the offering of sacrifices is governed by strict regulations, in order that we tangibly relate to God in a true, proper way.

Furthermore, korbanot address the human emotion of guilt. After a person sins, it is natural to feel guilty about having done wrong, having failed to live up to expected standards of behavior.

Instead of allowing a person to wallow in guilt, to feel disappointed and disillusioned and to succumb to a sense of hopelessness, the Torah requires the sinner to bring a sacrifice. One must purchase a living animal, bring it to the Temple, confess the sin, express a firm resolve never to repeat it and then offer the sacrifice upon the altar.

These steps allow for the individual to express natural guilt in a constructive manner and for one to perfect and improve one’s character instead of being paralyzed by guilt.

Even in today’s times, in absence of korbanot, the Torah continues to challenge us to use our yetzer hatov, or good inclination, to sublimate our yetzer hara, or evil inclination, and always channel them to achieve a higher purpose, to relate to God in a way that allows us to grow, improve and attain psychological and intellectual perfection.

Steven Weil is rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.


Will She Marry Him?

In my last Singles column, “Change of Heart,” I left off with one important question for my girlfriend, Carrie: “Will you marry me?”

Did she say yes?

Well, let me back up a bit.

A few days before the column came out, I drove over to Carrie’s parents to ask for their blessing. Carol and Roy were watching “24” when I got there, so I waited until the commercial break — odd priorities, but I suppose it’s more riveting watching Kiefer Sutherland trying to stop the explosion of a nuclear warhead than watching me trying to stop the nervous trembling in my right leg.

Roy stood. Carol took a seat. I dove right in.

“You guys know I love Carrie very much, and I’m going to ask her to marry me. I’d like to get your blessing.”

They both seemed to gasp slightly, but then Carol gave me a hug and began repeating the phrase, “Oh my God!” Roy stiffened his body and seemed to freeze slightly. He didn’t give me a hug. Luckily, I did see some blinking. Carol teared up a little, and I answered all her rapid-fire questions about the ring, and how I was going to propose.

And then suddenly, she admonished me for coming in the middle of her favorite TV show: “You better save it on your TIVO for me.”

Roy relaxed a little, “It’s too bad you couldn’t come on a Friday, when there’s nothing on TV.”

I laughed, although I’m not sure he was joking. Carol hugged me again, and they quickly ran back to catch the last 10 minutes of their show.

The next day, Roy called me to meet him for lunch. I got a little nervous as I drove over to meet him. I get along well with Roy, but wondered what kind of warnings would he have for me before I married his daughter. Although he’s a peaceful man, I imagined him chasing me through the house, swinging his belt if ever I hurt his baby girl.

It turned out he just wanted me to know that he was happy for us. “I don’t show a lot of emotion,” he confessed. “Do you believe how Carol was acting?” he asked me, referring to her “overemotional” display of teary eyes and a hug. I nodded knowingly. I mean, this is my future father-in law. As we left, I thanked him for lunch. Then, just before getting into my car, I grabbed the guy and gave him a big, fat hug.

The morning that the column came out, I drove over to The Jewish Journal office to get a fresh copy of the newspaper. Jumping back into my car, with a new parking ticket flapping on my windshield (so maybe I don’t always read the signs), I drove over to the Farmers Market to pick up some food.

I really wanted to take Carrie on a picnic, but it was still drizzling outside. I stayed optimistic and went to Loteria, our favorite Mexican place to get two of their finest burritos (considering the cost of the ring, I contemplated buying one burrito and splitting it in half).

I picked up Carrie from work and, amazingly, as she walked out the door, the rain suddenly stopped. I quietly thanked God. We drove to a nearby park and spread out the picnic.

“Oh, before you eat, guess what?” I said nonchalantly as we sat down. “I wrote another column in The Jewish Journal,” and gave it to her. Of course, given my last columns, she didn’t know what was coming — especially with this one titled, “Change of Heart.”

She took one look at the title and said, “Uh oh.” I hovered nervously behind her, waiting to pop out the ring. As she read, she occasionally looked up to laugh or nod her approval. And then I saw her body stiffen as she got to the last line. She froze, just like her dad.

“Oh my God,” she gasped, just like her mother.

I grabbed the ring, got on one knee and asked, “Will you marry me?” She cried and answered, “Yes.”

We kissed. Two pot smokers nearby clapped. I waved back to them.

Then Carrie went through a rainbow of emotions, the likes of which I have never seen. She laughed, she argued, she protested, she cried, she smiled, she didn’t know what to do with herself.

Suddenly she stammered, “Ar … re you sure about this? We’ve been arguing lately.”

We had been arguing, but mostly because I was sneaking around trying to deal with the engagement preparations. We’ve never really had secrets before, and the months I was planning all of this were hard for me. It’s strange to not be able to discuss one of the biggest decisions of your life with the woman you love. But Carrie had always wanted to be surprised.

Carrie started to cry. “I love you so much. Of course I want to marry you,” she said.

“Then why are you crying?”

“I guess I don’t really like surprises,” she said. Speaking of which — she hadn’t even looked at the ring on her finger.

“Do you like it?” I asked.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “Is this real or is this cubic zirconia?”

Was she kidding me? “Cubic zirconia? I sure wish I had the option….”

Seth Menachem is an actor and writer who lives in Los Angeles.

Melancholy and an Intimate Sadness

Piero Cividalli’s paintings call to mind decayed Italian frescos and prehistoric art. But these nods to the past are woven through Cividalli’s artistic vision, emerging as finished pieces both intelligent and original.

A muted palette washes faces into their backgrounds as they stare mournfully outward. In one painting, two faces are disconnected, separated by space, by dividing lines and by different perspectives. Their mysterious melancholy is both evocative and elusive, a description that befits the artist as well.

Cividalli was born in Florence and lived there until 1939, when, at the age of 13, he immigrated to Israel with his family to flee the fascists. This uprooting at a young age profoundly affected him and his art. In Florence, his family had enjoyed wealth and a rich cultural heritage. But in Israel, he felt no kinship with other Israeli artists, nor was he financially free to pursue a career in art.

In Cividalli’s unpublished memoirs, quoted in an art catalog by curator Linda Siegel, he says, "If I no longer feel at home in Italy, it is also true that I have never put down roots in Israel." This feeling of isolation is apparent in Cividalli’s latest exhibit, "Unsaid Words," at Doublevision Gallery in Los Angeles.

Even Cividalli’s stills, far from just studies in form, are filled with emotion. He always paints the same objects, relics from his old life in Florence: a chair, a teacup, a goblet, all of which seem to gesture toward one another.

Both in his stills and abstracts, Siegel says that one sees "rhythmic, interacting objects." Indeed, abstracts, under Cividalli’s hand, take on a musical quality. A sad tune plays through the undefined shapes of color.

While Cividalli appreciates these analyses, he will not tell you if you’ve gotten it right. Ever the enigmatic artist, he simply and quietly insists, "I have no intentions behind the paintings. You do not plan it," he told The Journal.

"Unsaid Words" runs through July 20. Noon – 6 p.m. (Tuesday-Saturday). 5820 Wilshire Blvd., No. 100, Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 936-1553.

Chocolates and Knaidlach and Kugel, Oh My!

Real whipped butter. There’s only one time of year you’ll find it in my refrigerator — Pesach.

To me, sitting down Pesach morning with a cup of coffee, a box of matzah, a tub of sweet butter and a few different flavors of jelly is as essential to the holiday as the “Mah Nishtanah.”

That poses a bit of a problem this year, since I’ve spent every Thursday night for the past 14 months at a Weight Watchers meeting.

Pesach can be a nightmare for anyone counting calories.

The holiday’s foods are more laden with fat and emotion than any other time of year, and most people count on gaining a good five pounds over eight days.

That’s what prompted Elaine Berman — Sinai Temple member, interior designer, Jewish Federation volunteer, proud mother of Super Sunday Director Jody Berman, and Weight Watchers leader extraordinaire — to hold her first ever pre-Pesach pep talk last Sunday at Weight Watchers’ Westwood branch.

For the past eight years, Berman has inspired thousands of people to take off and keep off the pounds. She now leads 12 meetings a week, seeing about 400 people.

She says Pesach is probably the hardest week of the year.

“Pesach is like having eight days of Thanksgiving,” Berman told the group of about 50 people, which included Chabadniks, Stephen S. Wise members and everything in between. “It’s a very difficult holiday, and we have to take it with a common sense approach.”

Passover launches a multipronged attack, throwing rich and delicious foods our way while weakening our emotional and psychological defenses.

“There’s the whole deprivation factor,” piped up one person at the Weight Watchers meeting. “I think there’s so much I can’t have that week, God forbid I should be hungry.”

Just the novelty of all the prepared foods probably causes people to stock their pantries with foods they would never have the rest of the year, like five boxes of griddle mix, piles of chocolate bars, or, as Berman saw at one market, non-dairy kosher-for-Passover cheesecake (now really, how good could that possibly be?).

And don’t underestimate the power of comfort foods. Nostalgia can wreak havoc on otherwise steel will-power. Whether its chocolate-dipped macaroons or schmaltzy chopped liver, what your mother or grandmother served is probably going to end up on your table.

But don’t be afraid of lightening those recipes up a bit, Berman suggests.

“We still hold on to this idea that if it’s not rich, if it’s decaloried a little bit, it’s not going to be as good,” she says of Jewish eating habits. “We show our love and our prosperity with plenty.”

Of course, that’s a broad stereotype with major exceptions, and most people today are more conscious of fat and cholesterol. But on Pesach that awareness gets stored away with the chumetzdik dishes.

For Berman the challenge starts well before Pesach, in the “finishing-up frenzy” in the weeks before.

“I used to gain five pounds just cleaning my kitchen, because of my mother’s words, ‘it’s an aveirah (sin) to throw food away,'” Berman says.

Those pounds set the stage for the rest of the week, well beyond Seder night, Berman says.

She acknowledges that it’s nearly impossible to have a low-calorie Seder.

By the time the meal-your-mother-slaved-over hits the table, you’ve already filled up on matzah, charoset, eggs and potatoes. And just because you’re full on brisket and kugel doesn’t mean you won’t sample the chocolate covered matzahs, marble sponge cake and Barton’s candies.

But Seder is only two nights — not eight days.

“The biggest change for me in not having Pesach cost me eight pounds was understanding that seder indulgence and required foods was one thing, but the rest of the week doesn’t have to be matzah with greibenes (an Eastern European delicacy of chicken skin fried in schmaltz),” Berman says.

Most importantly, she says, “Pesach is such an important holiday to us. Make sure you enjoy it.”

As for me, I probably won’t have too much matzah with butter this year, since I’ll have lots of other foods to tempt me. I’ll be at one of these Passover hotels where there are around 12 meals a day — kind of like eight days of Thanksgiving, on a cruise ship.

But I am empowered. I know how to exercise control. I will allow myself small indulgences to satisfy my natural cravings. I will exercise. I will use all my Weight Watchers tools to successfully navigate my way through the extravagant buffet breakfasts, the heavy lunches and dinners — where there will be lots of beef, and always dessert. And of course, the multiple “tea rooms.” Tables and tables full of crispy potato chips, salty nuts, carefully crafted pastries, thick, rich ice cream, candies in all flavors and colors and textures. And chocolate. Mounds and mounds and mounds of chocolate.

Sure, I’ll be just fine.

Seven Tips for not gaining 100 Pounds in Eight Days:

1. The ritual requirements of Seder make a high-calorie night inevitable. But that doesn’t need to carry over to all the other nights — and days — of Pesach, too.

2. Eat fresh, simple foods instead of all the prepared, packaged stuff. Indulge in expensive fruits and vegetables, make interesting salads.

3. Don’t try to totally deprive yourself of the traditional comfort foods of Pesach. Just eat them in reasonable portions. Allowing yourself to indulge a little bit can empower you, and allow you to maintain control of your eating.

4. Don’t try to lose weight on Pesach, just concentrate on not gaining more than a pound our two.

5. Try lower-calorie versions of your favorite foods. Use egg whites instead of whole eggs, and cooking spray instead of oil. Cut the fat in most recipes.

6. Drink lots of water and exercise.

7. If you do over-indulge on Pesach, forgive yourself and move on. Don’t let the guilt throw you into an entire summer of unhealthy eating.

To sign up with Weight Watchers, call (800) 651-6000.